Every year, taxidermists from around the world gather in Springfield, Missouri to compete for their industry’s most vaunted title. The competition isn’t shown on television or even really written about in major media outlets, but to its competitors, winning Best in Show at the World Taxidermy Championships is the achievement of a lifetime. The New York Times took a camera to explore the personalities and rituals of this strange, niche world.
“To be a good taxidermist, you have to be able to take something that’s dead–it’s gone–and bring it back to life,” says Lowell Shapley, the winner for Best in Show. “You have to know the rules for that. The first rule is anatomy. The second rule is preservation of the specimen. To be able to do that and have it be convincing, that’s what separates the good from the great.”
The Times video shows that professional taxidermy requires much more than merely sticking some fur together. The judges base their assessments on minute anatomical details like the translucent third eyelid of a fox or the absence of mud on the tip of a warthog’s nose. Shapeley’s winning piece showed a mid-air fight between two gorgeously colored ring-necked pheasants, their wings dramatically outspread. This is the kind of “snapshot” moment the judges say they appreciate.
But taxidermy is changing. In recent years, the age-old practice has experienced a rebirth, attracting young hip urbanites who have a renewed interest in the natural world. This demographic shift has also brought more women into the long male dominated industry. “We have more ladies entered in the competition this year than just about any year I can remember,” Larry Blomquist, the event’s organizer, says. Perhaps with them will come more mainstream attention for this esoteric craft.